Running Coach Mary Johnson's Best Advice for 2021 Race Prep

By Mary Johnson, November 21, 2021

mary johnson running coachLast March, the world felt a seismic shift when the COVID-19 pandemic took off—and took hold of our daily lives. And endurance athletes, many of whom had been preparing for spring, summer, and fall races, found themselves in a unique form of limbo. Running coach Mary Johnson of Lift | Run | Perform reflects back on the past year, recalls how she mentored her athletes through such uncertain times, and gives her best advice for feeling strong and prepared when you (finally) toe the line.

endurance training

When the world changed, so too did my coaching

After the New York City Half Marathon was cancelled in March last year, I remember the email I sent out to athletes who needed to cut their training short. I wrote, “sending this email feels so odd, and it’s a scenario I’ve never played out in my head.” Even still, I also think back to the optimism we all had last spring as businesses were closing—and the naiveté of thinking that races were going to come back in the summer. To think that fall 2020 races wouldn’t happen seemed unfathomable. So I wrote, "we’re in this together! Let’s just hunker down, get through the spring without races, and we’ll make it out ok!”

Of course, we didn't just have to hunker down for the spring. As spring progressed (and COVID-19 was officially declared a global pandemic), "pivot" became my new favorite word as a coach. The state of the world just kept changing...and changing…and changing. And the state of running changed right along with it. By the time the summer rolled around and fall races (and spring races, again) were cancelled, it became very clear that normalcy was still far away, and that large-scale races would not happen until fall 2021 at the very earliest. 

As you can imagine, training has been a whirlwind for most of the athletes I coach—and some athletes have been embracing the struggle and the challenge, while others have required a complete break and step back from the training process to become more connected to their internal drivers—their "why." There isn’t one perfect way of coping; this journey has looked different for all of us.

So what now? Some major races have announced a potential return this fall, so is it safe to start planning 2021 and thinking about plans to run a fast race in the fall? And if so, what’s the best way to set up success in the next 10 months? 


First, embrace uncertainty (if you haven’t already)!

Athlete or not, we all remember that pit-in-the-stomach feeling as those first few weeks in March unraveled. I'm sure that you know what I’m talking about. So many people who hadn't experienced anxiety until that point were finally acquainted with it. As a running coach, I was terrified that there would be regulations on going outside solo in the U.S., as I knew many European countries fined residents if they were found outside beyond a certain perimeter from their homes. If the U.S. followed suit, I was prepared to lose just about every single athlete within my coaching business. I was so scared.

Thankfully, that never happened. And while some athletes did decide to take a step back from coaching during the pandemic, more athletes realized just how important running was to them, and having a weekly program like mine was the normalcy they needed to stay sane.

So, with races looming, can we finally start planning to run a real race? Truthfully, I think we can, but it’s important to remember that things can change at any time. So embrace the possibility that you might need to pivot (there’s that word again!) and test your training at an alternative event or even in a time-trial scenario. Either way, remember that training is never wasted; there are always going to be long term benefits. Don’t lose sight of that, no matter the outcome.


Set yourself up for success with "the final 10%"—including blood testing

This might seem obvious. But I’m talking about making tangible changes and improvements to the little things that go into training: nutrition, strength training, blood testing, in-run fueling, proper equipment/shoe selection, and mental strength. Now is the perfect time to hone in on what I like to call "the final 10%"—these are the little things that, if practiced and refined now, will add up to big breakthroughs once races come. You don’t need to be an expert in all of these thingsin fact, hiring an expert will probably help immensely! But making calculated changes and improvements to your training habits will help you become a better runner and athlete overall.

mary johnson final 10%When it comes to blood testing, I particularly want my athletes to have a solid control of their ferritin and vitamin D levels, as both have a major influence on athletic performance and, if low, can be reasons an athlete might be feeling stagnant in their training progress. I also believe that baseline blood testing, taken when an athlete is feeling physically strong, is an essential tool to which we can compare bloodwork from a time when, inevitably, that athlete feels lousy. Such a comparison becomes essential when figuring out what’s needed to work on.

As a coach, it's super easy for me to use InsideTracker Pro (their program for coaches and wellness practitioners like me) to monitor my athletes' bloodwork over time and ensure they're getting the right biomarkers tested. Some key phrases I hear from an athlete that often lead to my suggesting they get blood tested are:

  • “I feel really flat.”
  • “I feel like I can’t catch my breath.”
  • “I’m getting 8-10 hours of sleep per night, but I’m still feeling exhausted.”
  • “These paces are feeling really difficult for the effort I’m putting out.”


Ferritin and iron can make or break times—and as runners, we have heightened requirements

As endurance athletes, we need lots of oxygen to perform well, which means that low levels of iron can severely impact our oxygen capacity (iron is a key component of the oxygen-carrying molecule hemoglobin), and therefore decrease our performance.[1] We spend so much time training and trying to perfect our form, so it can be extremely frustrating when iron levels just aren’t cooperating.

Iron is a tricky subject, though. Endurance athletes need more iron than the average person, so oftentimes levels won’t be flagged by doctors in a regular blood draw because they’d be considered “normal” based on a standard range. This is why asking for your specific ferritin value post-blood draw or using a service like InsideTracker is really helpful. InsideTracker, specifically, takes personal details like training load into account when relating iron and ferritin levels to an optimal, target range.

FerritinI’ve been working on iron for years, and I’m proud to be at a really good place with it—and my fall 2020 times are proof that things were in line, as I made huge breakthroughs in both the 5k and 10k! I’ve focused on iron supplementation, and also made a big focus on eating more (including meat!) for the past several years. 


Optimized Vitamin D levels are essential for injury prevention

If you’re reading this and don’t know about the importance of Vitamin D, listen up! Vitamin D is essential for bone health and research suggests that it acts directly to increase protein synthesis and increase muscle mass.[2] While we can typically increase our Vitamin D levels via sun exposure, geography and season can heavily impact the efficiency of this process. As such, supplementation is commonly recommended. Of course, the only way to know whether supplementation is warranted, and the appropriate dosage if it is, is by measuring blood levels of the vitamin.

VitDOn a personal note, with a history of stress fractures, Vitamin D is something I’ve worked on improving for years—with great success, for the most part! The graph here shows my very first blood test with InsideTracker, from 2015, just after being diagnosed with a femoral stress reaction. At the time, I wasn’t supplementing with Vitamin D and I had no clue about its relation to bone health. My doctor had never discussed it with me, so I didn’t know it was something about which I should be concerned. Since getting control of it in 2015, my Vitamin D levels have steadily improved, and I remained bone-injury-free for 5 years!


For runners who had an easy 2020 training schedule: now's the time to get after it

If most of your running programming looked easy in 2020 (or for the past several weeks), now is the time to build your turnover and quality mileage. Here’s where I’d start with an athlete who’s jumping back into things, each phase lasting 4-6 weeks:

Phase 1: Start with incorporating strides and/or hill charges 2-3 x week. I like to get spicy with reps of 7-10 seconds, all the way up to 20-30 seconds—always with a very chill recovery. You would add these towards the end of a run. 

Phase 2: Introduce hills and fartleks. Some sample workouts include 60 second hills, 10x1 minute on/off, and even a ladder of 1-2-3-2-1 minutes on. No need to run too much focused volume over 3 minutes per interval in this phase.

Phase 3: Depending on how far out you are from your race, you can actually stick with the short intervals from Phase 2 for quite a while. But the closer you get to your race, the more specific you want to get with your tempos and cumulative mileage. Think 1-3 mile tempos—sample workouts include 1, 1.5, or 2 mile repeats.

Phase 4: 8-10 weeks out from your race is when you want to really hone in on your pacing abilities. If you’re staring down a marathon, remember that long runs are overrated (cumulative mileage is most important), but that spending lots of time above, at, and below marathon pace (MP) is important. A sample workout would be 2x4 miles at MP.


For runners whose 2020 running included workouts and lots of volume: pace yourself

Did you take a break from training/running at all in 2020? If not, now is the time to do it. I’m talking 2 weeks of very minimal running, or just making sure you’re taking things very easy. When training actually ramps back up again, you'll want to make sure you’re ready physically and mentally. Remember that training throughout the pandemic will likely yield faster times in 2021—but not if you didn’t give your body a chance to recover first.

Once you’re ready to rumble and get back to the grind of training, keep things quick and fun for a while, and play around with distances like the 5k/10k. The turnover will help immensely once you transition back to longer training. 


My final piece of advice for all runners

Most importantly: no matter where you are in your pandemic journey, or how you’ve fared through this weird time of life, remember to give yourself some love—because this has been really difficult! The great news is that things are looking more and more certain, and races will return. That’s the cool thing about running: it’s always there for us, waiting. And even a pandemic couldn’t take it away from us. So are you ready to make 2021 your strongest/best year ever?

mary johnson runningEn route to a 5k PR this fall, photo credit @shawnkstjean


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Mary Johnson, Running & Strength Coach
Mary founded Lift | Run | Perform in 2017 upon the concept that performance running and lifting go hand in hand. She holds both USATF and VDOT02 coaching certifications and is a Functional Range Conditioning Mobility Specialist (FRCms). She has also undergone Kinstretch Level I instruction certification program. She coaches athletes of all levels and abilities, and as a mother to a little boy, Mary loves working with postpartum mamas and specializes in injury comeback. Follow her @itsamarython.




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